Reba’s Ranch House: A Designer’s Lesson of Love & Learning

Learning comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s at jobsite training, and sometimes it’s during hours-long car rides with colleagues. I experienced one such career-changing leap in knowledge — and life — while working on a small but important project: an expansion of Reba’s Ranch House, named after its principal benefactor, country western music megastar, Reba McEntire.

But before I begin, a little history lesson. The non-profit Texoma Health Foundation (THF) owns and operates Reba’s Ranch House, a home-away-from-home for families whose loved ones are being treated at health care facilities in the four county region served by THF. One of these facilities is Texoma Medical Center, located in the North Texas town of Denison near the Oklahoma border, has a long history with HKS. The most recent venture was the design and construction of a 369,000 square-foot, eight-story replacement hospital that opened in 2009.

For relatives of patients at area hospitals in the Texoma region, instead of sleeping in a hospital waiting room, Reba’s Ranch House offers them a comfortable and affordable home away from home. It not only provides families a place to rest, but a caring community, nutritious meals, sensitive staff and connections to spiritual support as well.

In 1987, Reba McEntire performed her first benefit concert in Denison, launching a fundraising campaign to build Reba’s Ranch House. The original Reba’s Ranch House opened in 1992. Reba’s annual Memorial Day benefit concerts, golf tournaments and fundraising events became a thing of legend in the region.

Due to growing demand, THF built a new, larger Reba’s Ranch House designed by HKS in 2010 before we had a formal pro bono program. Incorporating warm and natural earth hues accented with Austin stone and ranch-styled wood trusses and dormer windows, the house provides 12 private guest rooms with shared dining, living and play space and a peaceful, landscaped garden courtyard.

In the spring of 2018, THF needed more space and an efficient office and conference room layout. Noel Barrick and Doug Compton, retired HKS principals who were the original project manager and designer of Reba’s Ranch House in 2010, enlisted support from Citizen HKS, the firm’s public interest design initiative, to provide design services and resources for the renovation.

And thus, my story begins. 

If you are new to Citizen HKS projects, as I once was, you quickly realize that public interest design projects begin with a different focus. There is no profit to the firm, all services are donated, and the idea of being a true advocate for the client is pushed to the forefront. The client’s passion becomes your passion, which isn’t a new concept — especially in health care where I’ve spent years designing buildings for devoted institutions who put their patients first. Yet there is something refreshing about being able to offer your skills and talent purely for the health, safety and welfare of others without expectation of reward or compensation.

So, when given the opportunity to work on this Citizen HKS project, I approached it with excitement and a little hesitation. While the scale of the project was fairly small, the staffing was also small: I was the lone HKS employee working with two retired principals to take this project from schematic design through construction. But that shouldn’t be a deterrent to anyone else considering public interest design work, and here’s why.

In a large firm it’s easy to find yourself siloed, filling the same role on various projects with little change in “scenery.”  Even when this decision is by choice, there is something lost when you cordon yourself off from other phases of a project. While reviewing project submittals may come easy to some people, I found myself seated at the desk of HKS’ quality control guru, all too often looking for a reassuring nod that would indicate I’d done everything correctly. Knowing that architect/contractor relations on a project of any size can be tricky, the local contractor was an absolute joy to work with. Our partnership allowed for a beautiful addition to an existing building.

Prior to Texoma Health Foundation, I had never worked on a project from start to finish. This small project opened the door to learning new skills and professional growth, making me a more well-rounded designer and asset to my project teams and firm. What had first caused me hesitation turned out to be a fantastic lesson in architecture, career-building and life.

A Legacy of Learning

Over the summer and fall in 2018, Doug and I would meet at Noel’s house to begin our hour-long adventure to Reba’s Ranch House. A car ride that could easily be filled with music or silence was instead filled with storytelling and reminiscing. One might find it an odd mix: an African-American woman sitting in the backseat, listening to two retired white principals talk about their time at HKS. Sometimes they would just catch up, chatting about the weekly retired principal’s lunch at Ojeda’s. Other times it would be lively stories about ski trips, or when HKS was a small firm and employed very few women. I became a human sponge on these rides, absorbing as much as Doug and Noel would share.

As we came upon a car accident on Highway 75 one day, our normal one-hour trek turned into a six-hour journey. But that happenstance afforded me the chance to ask questions about the firm’s history and learn even more about the true legal weight of our projects.

As I reflect on those trips to and from Denison, I’m grateful for the experience and thankful that I took the time to sit, listen and participate. Neither Noel nor I knew this would be Doug’s last project — he passed away in 2019. I know Noel agrees that we are both thankful to have had the opportunity to work with Doug and learn from him. Doug’s design skills were unmatched as he modeled and rendered his own design schemes from home, sending new updates for me to input in Revit, or for the client to insert into marketing material. Although Doug’s body eventually failed him, his mind never did.

Doug Compton (right) in 2014.

Doug’s design could be viewed as simply a minor addition and renovation in a small Texas town. But the impact this project has had on the people in north Texas and southern Oklahoma is anything but insignificant. Since it opened, Reba’s Ranch House has served more than 35,000 people when they’ve been at their most vulnerable. Having retired, Doug and Noel could have easily turned down this project and no one would have questioned their decision. I could have also passed, opting for a more high-profile project.

But we all decided to say yes. Yes, to continuing to build upon a cherished relationship with Reba’s Ranch House staff who welcomed us with open arms during each visit, their gratitude apparent. Yes, to continuing to mentor younger staff like myself. And finally, yes to giving freely of our time and talents to help a community in need.  

The world is moving fast. We speed through our lives on overdrive, moving from one project to another, with a “knock it out and move on” mentality, often forgetting that it is sometimes the small things that have the greatest impact.